In the Paddock

Carl Nafzger walked down Ludlow Street toward Madison Avenue and the Fasig-Tipton sales grounds the afternoon of Aug. 2 – not long after the 2019 Hall of Fame ceremony he attends every year as an inductee himself in 2008. A catalog from the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga select sale in hand, Nafzger went to check out a few yearlings that afternoon before ending his annual Saratoga sojourn.

“I’m headed home tomorrow morning,” said Nafzger, who trained champions and Kentucky Derby winners Unbridled and Street Sense and champion and Kentucky Oaks winner Banshee Breeze. “But I’ll be back for Born to Rein August 20.”

My mind went immediately into overdrive.

Born to Rein . . . Born to Rein . . . Born to Rein?

Who’s Born to Rein? What race was Born to Rein running in Aug. 20? Is there even racing Aug. 20? (Spoiler alert, there isn’t).

After trying to play along, nodding and saying OK, there didn’t seem to be any sense in faking it.

“Hey Carl, what’s Born to Rein?”

Nafzger, ever the gentleman, provided the short answer that Born to Rein was a documentary film about the lives of legendary trainers John Nerud, Marion Van Berg and Jack Van Berg. Then he asked, “Do you know why Sir Barton is buried in Douglas, Wyoming?”

Stumped again.

“You’ll have to come see the movie and find out,” he said before chatting some more about the filmmakers, when it would be shown and how to generate some interest. “I’ll get them in touch with you. Better yet, maybe they’ll take out an ad in the paper.”

Two hours later a number from Billings, Montana, showed up on my phone and a full tutorial about Born to Rein ensued from Jody Lamp and Melody Dobson. Turns out the film will have its national premier Tuesday, Aug. 20 – see, it was a dark day – at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. Nafzger, interviewed in the film along with some other racing legends, plans to attend with his wife Wanda.

Lamp and Dobson will be on hand, too, their second trip to Saratoga after coming when there was snow and ice everywhere and temperatures barely cracked freezing.

The film has been shown already, in theaters in Nebraska where Nerud and the Van Bergs cut their teeth and in Douglas, Wyoming, the final resting place of the first Triple Crown winner. The film was accepted into the Louisville International Film Festival Oct. 10-12.

“The movie weaves a story between all these people that are main characters in the film,” Lamp said. “You watch it and get a feeling for how one thing leads to another and it started back in 1916 when Sir Barton was born. It’s an intriguing story that goes across state lines, so it’s a national documentary.

“Guys like Bob Baffert, D. Wayne Lukas and Bill Mott, they all credit these gentlemen (the Van Bergs and/or Nerud) for giving them their starts or helping them along the way. They credit their upbringing, horsemanship and ability to be good businessmen after coming from that ranch background. It’s a documentary they can be proud of that showcases the industry they are a big part of now. And it talks about the history of horse racing and its origins back in New York. It puts a great spotlight on Saratoga. John Nerud showed up in Saratoga penniless in 1937 and made it all the way to the Hall of Fame and beyond.”

Lamp and Dobson co-founded the American Doorstep Project, which produced the film. They were inspired to start seven years ago, learning the stories of the Van Bergs and Nerud. They eventually saw a connection with Sir Barton, who spent time as a U.S. Army Remount Service Stallion at Fort Robinson near Crawford, Nebraska.

“We see this as our chance to put a spotlight on the Thoroughbred industry in a commemorative fashion,” Dobson said. “It’s the 100th anniversary of the first Triple Crown winner. We’re ecstatic to show it to people. It’s a fitting piece and a good commemorative piece to be used during a celebratory time in Saratoga, Travers Week.

“People like Bill Mott, D. Wayne Lukas, Gary Stevens, Pat Day, Carl Nafzger, we interviewed them all. We caught them during the Kentucky Derby in 2018 and all we said was, ‘We’re doing a documentary film on John Nerud and Marion and Jack Van Berg’ and they all stopped to talk to us. We raised the funds for putting this together. We’re self-sufficient for that and paying our way through. Carl vetted the project. We didn’t want to go and work on something like this without his blessing and he encouraged us to go forward. We kicked it off in front of a group of business folks in Scotts Bluff, Nebraska, and asked if they felt it was important and worthy of their time. They later became advisors and encouragers and said, ‘Yes, this is a story that needs to be told.’ ”

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